Mary Nieves wants her children to be properly educated, even when a pandemic threatens that. She also objects to school board members insulting people online, insisting they have violated the district’s code of conduct.
And she’s letting many know about it, resulting in several mothers joining her in disapproving.
Nieves, whose son and daughter attend Charles Helmers Elementary in the Saugus Union School District, believes children should be physically in school, that masks and social distancing don’t work on the youngest kids, and board members Julie Olsen and David Barlavi aren’t helping matters with certain Facebook posts unrelated to school matters.
Olsen has called people “infectious little plague rats” online when she doesn’t agree with their viewpoints, such as when someone credited the mayor with pushing to reopen the city. Barlavi has posted about the pandemic (“When people walk by me without a mask, I take off mine and start coughing at them”) and the current demonstrations (“Let’s thank the looters for making LA safe from COVID again”). He also criticized Republicans for what he says is a lack of critical thinking.
Olsen did not return calls for comment, but her friend, BG Nikolai, said it was she who introduced Olsen to the original post, a cross-stitch that said in lower-case letters, “don’t be a jerk, you infectious little plague rat.”
“I feel sick about this. It was a joke,” Nikolai said. “If Julie called a student or parent that, I’d say, ‘Wow, what is wrong with you?’ ”
Barlavi said his comments are as an individual and not a school-board member. Still, he’s willing to talk one-on-one with anyone who disagrees with him.
“The best way to handle it is to contact me directly. They’re always welcome to do that,” he said. “To go through a third party or the press to figure out the nuances of a Facebook post, I don’t think it really helps.”
This isn’t the first time Olsen’s public statements have caused reactions. In November 2017, KHTS said on its website it had anonymously obtained texts Olsen had allegedly sent to various community members as far back at the previous December. KHTS called the texts “crass,” “vulgar,” “expletive-laden” and “insulting,” and posted a photo of the texts. The online article quoted four texts, using asterisks in place of some letters but leaving no doubt what the words were.
It’s also not the first time a school board member has been criticized for comments made outside of school-board matters. William S. Hart Union High School District Trustee Joe Messina has had community members upset at comments he’s made on his radio show.
Saugus district superintendent Colleen Hawkins did not return calls for comment but released a statement on the district’s website.
“It is critical that our community tackle the issue of equity and that our schools support students in developing their ability to be inclusive, tolerant, and understanding of others,” the statement said. “We must establish schools where children learn to engage in positive relationships with others, that they value their similarities with their peers, and they celebrate their differences.”
Nieves believes Olsen and Barlavi’s comments are uncivil and violate standards of governance and conduct. “Board Members who are not committed to this mission statement, and on the contrary making a mockery of it, need to go,” she wrote in a letter to the Gazette and KHTS. “Julie Olsen and David Barlavi are providing horrible examples for our kids and community members, demonstrating intolerance by labeling, name-calling, and negatively generalizing anyone with different beliefs from their own.”
Barlavi’s term expires in 2022. Olsen’s term is up in November; she announced in February she is not running and is moving away. Nieves lives in Olsen’s district but said she is not interested in running. She said she has thought about recalling Olsen and Barlavi but isn’t sure there’s enough time.
In addition to the board comments, Nieves objects to the district moving to a combination of in-school and online learning, although she acknowledged that in some ways the school district’s hands are tied. She said she called Hawkins seeking clarification and learned masks and social distancing will be implemented.
The state Department of Education released a 10-category checklist on Monday. While the 55-page report reminds that there is no “one size fits all” method to reopen schools, it encourages following local stay-at-home orders, limiting on-campus access, increasing hygiene practices, cleaning and disinfecting and protective equipment; ensuring physical distancing and having masks on hand for students who forget to bring one.
Nieves believes science is on her side when she says young children need to be in school without masks and social distancing.
She referenced numerous studies. One, co-written by a medical doctor in The Hill newspaper, quotes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Of the first 68,998 U.S. deaths from COVID-19, only 12 have been in children under age 14,” and only 10 of the first 16,469 confirmed coronavirus deaths in New York City were among those under age 18.
Another, from a JAMA Pediatrics study: “Our data indicate that children are at far greater risk of critical illness from influenza than from COVID-19.”
And a third, from the Annuals of Internal Medicine in April: “Neither surgical nor cotton masks effectively filtered SARS-CoV-2 during coughs by affected people.”
The Hill article also asked the following questions: “How can classrooms hold students spread apart by six feet? How can you practice phonics with your mouth covered? How can you learn if it is time to return home just as you have settled into your seat? How can you develop socially and emotionally if you must remain distant from friends at recess? How can teachers instruct with masks on their faces?”
And the Southern California chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which represents about 1,500 doctors, said in a statement that keeping children away from in-person instruction for longer would have negative consequences.
“The numbers and science do not reflect the need for such drastic measures,” Nieves said. “You can’t expect kids to learn.”
Carla Delgado, who grew up in Santa Clarita, attending Peachland Elementary, Placerita Junior High and Hart High, said her children’s education is most important. One child is at Highlands and one will start at Helmers. She called masking and social distancing “unfeasible.”
“I don’t see how teachers can manage young kids: ‘Don’t get too close to Johnny,’” she said. “That will take more away from their education.”
Delgado also had words for Olsen. “I understand people have a right to their own opinion, but how about you act with a little bit of dignity?”
Kendall Evans, whose child attends Helmers, said her daughter is afraid of masks because she doesn’t understand them. She also said Olsen has a long history of making disparaging comments that “gives us little hope that our kids have any hope for going back to normalcy. … It’s really antagonistic. You need to objectively weigh what’s good and bad for the school district.”
One mother, who doesn’t live in either Olsen or Barlavi’s district and has children in two district schools, said the other board members and Hawkins need to hold each other accountable.
“The school board has a more important job than ever before,” said the mother, who didn’t want to be identified for fear of retribution. “We need someone honoring the values of our community and the students they serve in Santa Clarita.”
Nieves said she believes something needs to be done or parents will flee the district and opt for homeschooling, as she is.
“We need people who are rational, open-minded, tolerant, who can make decisions for our kids in a time like this,” she said. “Julie Olsen calling people infectious little plague rats, how am I supposed to trust that person has the right intentions for our children?”